Our Madonna

Madonna’s just-completed visit to Israel has been called a lot of things: scandalous, threatening, inspiring, encouraging, cheap.

But what it mustn’t be called is shocking.

If Madonna really wanted to shock us, she wouldn’t have flown to the Holy Land with 2,000 other followers of the Kabbalah Learning Centre (see story, page 28). She would have joined a mainstream American synagogue, shown up in the sixth row on Rosh Hashanah and sat in rapt attention for the whole service, without fidgeting. Now that would be shocking.

Some Jews are stunned and others outraged that the Queen of Pop has been attracted to a newfangled iteration of kabbalah. Never mind that kabbalah itself, according to University of Judaism professor Pinchas Giller, over the centuries often appeared in newfangled iterations. Wouldn’t it be more astounding and inexplicable if Madonna adopted what passes for normative Jewish practice these days: an annual visit to synagogue, a limited donation to Jewish causes, no ongoing study, no Hebrew knowledge and no visit to Israel?

Some Jews can’t believe Madonna can find anything spiritually powerful and meaningful in Judaism because they find nothing spiritually powerful and moving about Judaism. How dare she appear to draw insight and power from a religion that they feel has left them spiritually bereft. Who is Madonna to become Esther when so many Jews have become Buddhist? A lot of the people disparaging Madonna’s Jewish practice have long ago given up their own.

Madonna’s faith is hardly newfound. I’ve had several long conversations with the men Madonna claims as her spiritual teachers, Eitan Yardeni and Michael Berg, both rabbis at the Kabbalah Learning Centre in Los Angeles. These conversations took place in 1998 when I wrote a long investigative piece on the center. At the time, it was a mysterious place on Robertson Boulevard that generated shadowy rumors of cult-like practices, yet drew scores of white-clad believers every Shabbat — including Madonna.

I attended services, interviewed current and former adherents, harsh critics and fervent supporters. I didn’t speak with Madonna, but I did say "Shabbat shalom" to Sandra Bernhard.

Rumors and accusations have long besmirched the center. In my mind there is no question that its claims and practices sometimes cross the line into the absurd and the unethical. In Israel, Madonna and other center adherents made a pilgrimage to the grave of Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag, the kabbalist whom center founder, Rabbi Philip Berg, claims as his spiritual teacher. But my own research found that Ashlag’s yeshiva issued a statement disassociating itself from Berg, as have the descendants of Berg’s other putative teacher, Rabbi Yehuda Zvi Brandwein.

The center sells water it claims contains special spiritual powers. When The Journal had the water tested by a reputable lab in September 2000, the lab reported that the water was indeed, water.

Perhaps most disturbing were the fervid sales and retention tactics some center adherents used on others.

"There was a constant push to give money," a former member told me. When a teacher at the center suggested the member write a check for $1,571 because it was "a special number" for him, the man’s skeptical wife asked her husband, "Can’t we just give $15.71? Why should God care about a decimal point? I’m sure he wouldn’t care if we gave $15,710."

Reports of center lapses have cooled in recent years. One scholar of religion told me that, like Scientology, whose marketing techniques Berg has emulated, success provides incentives to smooth off any rough edges, or at least keep them far from Madonna.

I don’t know Madonna, but, this being Los Angeles, I know people who know Madonna. They have sat at seder tables with her and found her engaged and curious. Her questions about the Passover story revealed a Jewish foundation built with the limited tools provided by center rabbis. But there are many Jews who take their seders less seriously, and many who don’t ever sit down at one at all.

The center has often served as a way station for people on a Jewish journey. By inserting Jewish spiritual practice into mainstream culture and New Age argot, it presents an appealing if (to the rest of us) bizarre face of Judaism. I know several people for whom the center was the first step to more serious Jewish learning and practice. They tired of the center’s particular approach, but they stayed intrigued enough by the Judaism to which it had exposed them.

These people stand in contrast to those for whom Judaism has remained a static inheritance, who have never strayed from their particular orthodoxy, whether that orthodoxy is one movement, one set of political beliefs, one rebbe or one service per year.

The variety of Jewish religious experience wholly embraces the kind of folk religion Madonna experienced in Israel. The country is filled with reputed graves of ancient mystics whose adherents gather to light candles and leave offerings and amulets in hopes of miracles.

Judaism, in all its various guises over the centuries, offers something lasting and important to those who explore it. It’s not a club, it’s a journey, and Madonna — I mean, Esther — is welcome on the path.